Nobody wants to talk about suicide. Suicide, however, is indifferent to this lack of attention and kills 44,193 people every year in the United States alone regardless. That’s 121 ‘successful’ suicides every day – and for each of these, there are another 25 attempts. In fact, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, behind heart and respiratory diseases and diabetes, but ahead of liver disease, Parkinson’s, and homicide. It is pandemic.
So what are we doing about it?
There are suicide helplines. But the effectivity and consistency of this resource has been called into question. In research informing the SAMHSA-funded National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Policy, it was found that of 33 calls where a suicide attempt was already in progress, emergency services were dispatched for six, helpline staff helped develop a ‘safety plan’ in eight, and no attempt was made to intervene in nineteen. This policy sought to develop a systematic approach to be applied in cases where callers were at ‘imminent risk’ of suicide, and was enforced nationwide in 2012. There exist, however, a couple of noteworthy inconsistencies within the framework. For example, it stresses ‘collaboration with the caller’ as a core value – which surely implies a certain level of mutual respect – yet simultaneously positions callers as necessarily irrational. Similarly, the policy recognises that ‘a supportive approach’ and ‘collaborative problem-solving’ are more successful than ‘authoritarian’ dynamics, and that ‘fear of potential police intervention can deter individuals from discussing their suicidal thoughts with others,’ but also implements the covert tracing of calls and unsolicited physical interventions by the emergency services.
This is not entirely controversial, and the reasoning is pretty clear: to be able to help someone, don’t support services need to know their location? However, implementing this as a systemic policy approach bestows great responsibility upon the police and emergency services, and thus the capacities of these actors must be carefully considered. Currently, the US is learning the hard way that its police force and emergency services lack the adequate crisis intervention training, and in fact may more often escalate situations by shouting commands and brandishing weapons. More seriously, there may even be evidence supporting police patterns of deliberate abuse towards those struggling with their mental health.
Here is a statistic that many do not know about the annual 963 fatal police shootings of civilians in the United States: almost half of those killed are mentally unwell. In many cases, the civilian’s mental state is known to the police officers. Yet a policy that undermines people’s rationality and agency and legitimises surreptitious tracing of calls inflates brash egos and aggression towards the very people in need of help. So it is not just the capacities, but the underlying mindset, that must be corrected. In the all too rare instances when officers are specially trained, ‘Crisis Intervention and Negotiation Units’ often combine suicidal persons, hostage-takers, and barricaded suspects together. An inappropriate grouping of mentally ill and suicidal people with criminals and terrorists is emblematic of the problem of the criminalisation of this group. Criminalisation that has grown so prevalent, in fact, that it has given rise to a new method of suicide: ‘suicide by cop’.
Suicide by cop is exactly what it sounds like – the goal is to ‘provoke’ the police to shoot. ‘Suicides’ have been completed in this way by those as young as sixteen; police have been called to intervene with people showing signs of disturbance or suicidal intent and felt sufficiently threatened by weapons or behaviours to shoot and kill – only to discover afterwards that the weapon was fake, or that a suicide note had been left prior to the encounter. According to The Guardian these incidences make up 12% of fatal police shootings, and in two-thirds of cases police had prior knowledge that they were dealing with a suicidal person. And they still pull the trigger.
This is a nation-wide, systemic issue that must be addressed immediately. Responses to family calls for help for their loved ones should not be responded to with assault rifles instead of mental health professionals, or with nineteen armed and untrained officers. This can only lead to more killings. Men are killed. Women are killed. Children, teenagers, adults, and pensioners are killed. Pregnant women are killed. They are killed in their cars, in shopping centers, in their own homes. And they are killed within minutes of police arriving. An improved approach will not only save lives, but money as well; suicide currently costs the US $44 billion annually. The problem is not going away – in fact, with cutbacks in mental health services, repeal of The Affordable Care Act, and growing abuse of prescription drugs, it is only likely to intensify.
If you are affected by this issue there are a number of support services available.